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Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte

Masterproef Taal- en Letterkunde


Master Theater- en Filmwetenschap

Narrative and Cinematography in Gus Van Sant’s


Death Trilogy
Going Against Mainstream Expectations
Frederik Forger

Promotor: Sabine Hillen


Assessor: Ruben Demasure

Universiteit Antwerpen

Academiejaar 2016-2017
Ondergetekende Frederik Forger, masterstudent Taal- en Letterkunde Theater- en
Filmwetenschappen, verklaart dat deze masterproef volledig oorspronkelijk is en uitsluitend
door hemzelf geschreven is. Bij alle informatie en ideeën ontleend aan andere bronnen, heeft
ondergetekende expliciet en in detail verwezen naar de vindplaats.

[plaats + datum] [handtekening]

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Abstract

Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy, consisting of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days
(2005), is often regarded as an art house experiment in narrative film making due to its
unconventional narrative structure and stylised cinematography. As a result of this, they are
often ignored by a mainstream film audience on the perception that these three films are boring
to watch. It is the aim of this paper to examine what kind of narrative structure and
cinematography Gus Van Sant has employed in these three films: how they differ from
conventional film making, how they are presented and what effect this has on these three films
and the viewer. By more closely inspecting and analysing certain key moments in each film,
we can come to the conclusion that Gus Van Sant managed to direct three films using his own
cinematic language that is not constrained by the norms of mainstream cinema or the
expectations of the viewer but is instead built on the primary aspect of cinema: the image.

Keywords: Gus Van Sant, Death Trilogy, Narrative, Cinematography, Gerry, Elephant, Last
Days

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Table of Content

Introduction 5
Chapter 1: Death Trilogy 7
Chapter 2: Gerry 10
Chapter 3: Elephant 16
Chapter 4: Last Days 21
Conclusion 25
Bibliography 28

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Introduction

When one talks about a film nowadays, be it a critical analysis, a review for a journal or just
among friends, one of the first things that is addressed, if not the very first thing, is what the
film is about. Nearly always this will amount to the film’s narrative, its story, its plot. This
should not come as a surprise as we have a natural inclination towards stories and storytelling,
clearly evident by the fact that storytelling is one of the oldest traditions we have, one that is a
worldwide and universal aspect of every human culture. So when the concept of motion pictures
arose in the 19th century, it did not take long before film went from a visual medium to a visual
narrative medium. This happened as early as 1893 with the Kinetoscope film Blacksmith Scene
by William Kennedy Dickson. It is the earliest known example of actors performing a role in a
film: three men in a blacksmith’s shop hammering on a piece of metal and passing around a
bottle of beer afterwards. From thereon, film evolved to incorporate more and more narrative
complexity. This eventually resulted in the narrative of the classical Hollywood film, described
as ‘psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or attain a
specific goal’ (Bordwell 157), which became the norm against which we compare and judge all
other film narratives.

But once in a while a film comes along that subverts or outright rejects this entire narrative
tradition. It is precisely for this reason, and the strong reaction that it elicits from the general
audience, that these kind of films deserve a closer look. Such is the case with Gus Van Sant’s
Death Trilogy: Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005). In contrast to the classical
Hollywood narrative, these films fall within the category of avant-garde cinema or art cinema
where the characters ‘tend to lack clear-cut traits, motives, and goals’ (Bordwell 207) or ‘may
act inconsistently or they may question themselves about their purposes’ (Bordwell 207). More
often than not, these kind of films have a hard time enticing an audience that is quick to discard
these films as boring, too difficult to grasp or even pretentious. All three of the aforementioned
films have befallen these kinds of verdicts. When Gerry debuted at the 2002 Sundance Festival,
Jan Stuart of The Advocate described the attending audience as follows: ‘A few who made it as
far as the end credits registered their disapproval with boos; still others tittered with disdain and
clucked things like ‘My eighth-grade nephew could have made a better movie’’ (51). Elephant
was criticised by New York magazine critic Peter Rainer as ‘just another example of art-house
hokey-pokey’ (81) and Last Days was said by Mark Kermode from the New Statesman to be
‘Stupid, pointless, fatuous, irresponsible and (worst of all) dull, dull, dull, Last Days is one of
those movies that make you lose the will to live’ (31).

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Do these three films deserve this kind of criticism? When viewed in a vacuum one might be
inclined to think so. Any work that deviates from the norm always carries with it the risk that it
will be disregarded without a second thought. The aim of this thesis is to provide a more in-
depth analysis of these three films by comparing and distinguishing between the classical
Hollywood narrative framework and the narrative framework presented in each film, as well as
to showcase how Gus Van Sant subverts viewer expectations and how he creates a cinematic
experience that draws on cinematography and images rather than the external constructions of
character development, plot and other elements typically associated with the classical
Hollywood narrative.

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Chapter 1: Death Trilogy

Before we take a look at each film individually, it pays to examine them as a whole. After
the success of Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000), The Death Trilogy
represents Gus Van Sant’s return to his roots as an arthouse director. The three films – there is
some debate over who came up with the collective name: Gus Van Sant or one of his critics –
are placed together as they share some characteristics between them. All three films deal with
death in one way or another, hence the name, and each draws inspiration from a real life death:
Gerry was inspired by the death of David Coughlin, who was killed by his friend after they got
lost during a hike through Rattlesnake Canyon in New Mexico; Elephant has its basis in the
1999 Columbine High School Massacre; and Last Days is loosely based on the death of Kurt
Cobain.

Another trait shared between the three films is that they eschew a traditional interpretation
of tellability. Tellability, as an aspect of narratology, can be broadly defined as what makes a
narrative worth telling. A narrative with high tellability would be considered interesting
whereas one with low tellability would be not. This is usually dependent on two things: what is
being told and how it is being told. As an example of the former, anything that deviates from
everyday happenings and normal procedures could be considered having high tellability and
therefore be interesting or noteworthy to tell. A walk from your home to the bank and back is
not much to talk about but a walk to the bank and getting caught up in a robbery would.
Conversely, something could be utterly banal and commonplace but be told in such a way that
it achieves high tellability. It is often said that the mark of a good speaker is that he or she can
make anything sound interesting. Within film narratology, this concept not only extents to what
and how something is told but also to how it is visually presented to the viewer.

When something is shown on screen, we spontaneously think, because the film makers have
put time and effort into presenting it to us, that it must have meaning and relevancy to the
narrative being told. The outright rejection however of what is traditionally understood as
tellability, is why these films suffer from the perception that they are boring and pointless. With
Gerry consisting mostly of two men walking through a desert landscape, Elephant showing an
ordinary high school day in meticulous detail and Last Days being more akin to a collage of
random scenes thrown together, it should come as no surprise that they would seem to have low
tellability. However, in contrast to this lack of tellability in the traditional sense, these films
derive their tellability from a common theme they share: death. While each film has a different
plot, they can all be reduced to a single, abstract arc: ‘the slow, strange transition of a body
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from being alive to not being alive’ (Myers) which stems from the conflict permeating each
film: man versus nature in Gerry, man versus man in Elephant and man versus self in Last
Days. Human culture, or at the very least Western culture, has a rather paradoxical relationship
with death: we fear it but are fascinated by it at the same time. Because of this, stories that deal
with death have high tellability, something that can be easily glanced from newspaper headlines
and the popularity of certain television series.

Despite all of this, these three films still carry the unfortunate label of being seen as utterly
boring. The apparently minimalistic aesthetic is often derided for failing to capture a modern
audience’s attention that is used to big blockbuster productions and the films’ slow cutting does
not answer to our familiarity with fast cutting or heavily edited films. It is estimated that any
shot lasting for longer than fifteen seconds will come across as slow to Western viewers, which
does not bode well for the three films where an average shot can last for one to nine minutes.
What is more, during that time, the camera keeps its focus on a single element or image,
believing that if you point a camera at something for an excessive amount of time it will
somehow magically be imbued with meaning. But minimal art does not have to be boring. As
Richard Lind observes, minimal art qualifies as aesthetic because it is presented as potentially
aesthetic (196). Because it is presented to us, the viewer, with that potential, we take an interest
in the piece, a deliberate choice, rather than finding something interesting about it, a
spontaneous act. ‘If nothing else, one wants to understand why they have been offered as works
of art’ (Richard Lind 196). Combined with the long take, which taxes the viewers’ patience,
and the minimal look or substance of each film, the viewer is invited to watch these films from
a different perspective or mind-set because ‘it is possible to be fascinated with very little when
one’s practical interest is not champing at the bit to finish the thing and move on’ (Richard Lind
197).

Aside from these narrative characteristics and aesthetics, which will be examined in closer
detail in the following chapters, the three films also share similarities in their stylistic and
formalistic choices. Chief among these are, as mentioned previously, the long take but also the
absence of the shot-reverse-shot editing style. While these serve different roles across the three
films, they mostly serve to distance the viewer from any of the characters in the films in an
effort to, once again, reject the classical narrative of having psychologically motivated
characters and having these internal motivations be revealed to us. Something that all three
films do not do, which is again a major contribution to these films being perceived as
uninteresting and contrary to conventional narratives, is to provide an explanation or a reason

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for anything that the characters do over the course of the films. Like the narrative aspects, these
stylistic and formal aspects will be given a more in-depth look in each chapter.

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Chapter 2: Gerry

Gerry is about two men, played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck and both named Gerry,
who go on a hike through a desert, get lost and stumble about for a couple of days until one
Gerry kills the other one. The fact that the entire film can be summarised in that single sentence
should be a clear indicator of how little narrative there is. Because of this, Gerry is often cited
as an example of non-narrative cinema, a genre of film where there is little to no relation
between shots, be it of a temporal, sequential or causal nature. There are indeed a lot of elements
and shots in Gerry that have little or no bearing on each other or the plot. Others might say that
Gerry belongs among the works of minimalist cinema based on its aesthetic look and
cinematography. While a case can be made for both of these claims, I will put forth a third
possibility: that Gerry does have a narrative construction, albeit one that fundamentally differs
from the classical narrative construction, and while the film does employ a minimalistic
aesthetic, its cinematography is not used in such a fashion but rather in a highly stylised and
innovative manner.

In order to determine Gerry’s narrative construction, it is best to first examine its refusal of
conventional narrative construction by taking a closer look at three specific key events in the
film: the opening sequence of Gerry Affleck and Gerry Damon driving to the desert, Gerry
Affleck being stranded on top of a boulder and the climax, if it can be called as such, of Gerry
Affleck’s death.

Gerry opens with a long take that lasts for two-and-a-halve minutes which is shot from
behind the moving car while Spiegel im Spiegel, written by Arvo Pärt, plays over the
soundtrack. The second shot is of the front of the car and we get a look at our two main
characters (I say main characters because, technically speaking, there are other characters in the
film) for a good fifty seconds. Their faces are expressionless and there is no dialogue, the only
sound being the non-diegetic music. The following shot is a point of view shot from the
characters’ perspective in which we see the road they are driving on for a good minute. It then
cuts back to the second shot where we can see them drive off the road, park their car and get
out. It is here that we hear the first diegetic sounds of tires on gravel and car doors opening and
closing as the music fades out.

This sequence gives us very little information in regards to the set-up of the film. A
traditional film would have used this moment to divulge some critical information: when, where
and who are the characters? What is their motivation for driving to the desert? Gerry provides

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none of these. The characters start walking on a path named ‘Wilderness Trail’ but it takes a
good seven-and-a-half minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken: ‘Hey, Gerry, the
path.’ Nine-and-a-half minutes into the film, we get the first semblance of a narrative when
Gerry Affleck asks how far ‘the thing’ is, the apparent destination of their hike. Our familiarity
with classical narrative structures has given us certain expectations on what the first couple of
shots and the set-up of a film should entail to: who are the characters, what are they doing and,
most importantly, why are they doing it? At this point, we expect to know who and what we
are watching and to be able to make an assumption of where the narrative is heading towards.
Gerry however defies viewer expectations and offers no set-up or recognisable plot for us to
latch on to.

On a side note, it is here that we can already read (too much) into the plot and characters as
we, as mentioned before, are inclined towards narratives involving psychologically motivated
characters. One such effort to give meaning comes from Film Quarterly where Devin
McKinney interprets the characters as homosexual, although nowhere in the film is any
indication given as to the sexual inclination of either Gerry, and the walk towards ‘the thing’ as
being akin to the American Indian vision quest or aboriginal walkabout of a boy coming into
manhood, the proverbial ‘thing’ at the end of the journey (45). He bases this interpretation on
themes from Gus Van Sant’s earlier works as well as Gus Van Sant being homosexual himself,
never mind the fact that at the twelve minute mark, the two Gerry’s decide to abandon the entire
‘thing’ altogether:

Gerry Damon: Fuck it, Gerry. Fuck this.


Gerry Affleck: Fuck the thing?
Gerry Damon: Fuck the thing.
Gerry Affleck: Power on to the thing!
Gerry Damon: Fuck the thing.
Gerry Affleck: Fuck the thing!
Gerry Damon: It’s just gonna be a fuckin’ thing at the end of the trail.
Gerry Affleck: Fuck the thing!
Gerry Damon: Fuck the thing. Let’s go back.

Afterwards, the ‘thing’ is never brought up again or referred to for the rest of the film,
making the narrative possibilities a dead end.

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The second events occurs about a half hour into the film. The shot, a long take of ten minutes
intercut once with a low angle shot of Gerry Affleck, shows us Gerry Affleck stranded on top
of a large boulder, rock-marooned he calls it. Gerry Damon is genuinely confused as to how
Gerry Affleck got up there, as is the audience, as the boulder is about four times the height of
the characters and there is no visible way Gerry Affleck could have gotten up there nor does
any shot prior to this show him doing so. No explanation is given, eschewing traditional
narrative, but for the first time something resembling a conflict is in the film: how to get Gerry
Affleck safely back on the ground. It is eventually decided that Gerry Damon will make a dirt-
mattress, the usefulness of it being sketchy at best. This is further emphasised by the scene
being filmed as a long shot, making the characters look smaller and the boulder larger in
comparison, which makes the dirt-mattress indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape.
Gerry Affleck finally jumps and just like that, the scene is over. It is never mentioned how
Gerry Affleck got up the boulder or why he did it and any tension the conflict might have had,
dissolves into nothing as it has no bearing on future events and it is never mentioned again. It
just happened with no rhyme or reason and no character or plot development comes of it.

The final event is what one might be inclined to call the climax of the film. In a traditional
narrative structure, this would be the moment the entire film has been building up to, where the
characters’ arc peaks and they move to resolve the central conflict in a way that is
psychologically motivated. Gerry has none of that. We see the two Gerries laying on their back
in the middle of an open, featureless space, exhausted from the heat and the hike. Gerry Affleck
states that he is leaving upon which Gerry Damon chokes him to death. This death scene is
bereft of any tension as either Gerry Damon’s body blocks it from view, it is filmed in long
shot which makes it difficult to see or the film cuts away to shots of the landscape. An extra
layer of irony is then added to the climax when, mere moments later, Gerry Damon spots a
highway in the distance and is subsequently rescued from his predicament. The viewer is left
to wonder as to why all of this happened. Was it as mercy killing as in the real life case of David
Coughlin? It is difficult to say as Gerry Affleck looks no worse than Gerry Damon. Gerry
Damon also offers no insight into it as there is no more dialogue in the film nor does his face
show any kind of emotion. In that regard, it is hard to call it a climax in the traditional sense as
there is no build-up to it, no motivation behind it and no resolution that stems from it, other
than there being only one Gerry left. In terms of plot construction or development, Gerry
deliberately avoids utilising conventional plot structures or devices.

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In the department of character development, the other aspect of the traditional narrative
structure, Gerry is also severely lacking. The two characters do not learn or change over the
course of the film, aside from one of them being dead. We also know next to nothing about
them. As mentioned before, the initial goal of the two Gerries, to get to the ‘thing’, is quickly
abandoned and replaced by haphazardly stumbling through the deserted landscape. Other than
this original goal, we learn only that Gerry Damon watches Wheel of Fortune, where the
contestant making a mistake and guessing ‘burying down the road’ instead of ‘barrelling down
the road’ could be foreshadowing the end of the film, that Gerry Affleck plays videogames, as
evident from his monologue when they sit around a campfire, and that they use the word Gerry
as a synonym for making mistakes or screw-ups as in ‘So we were going east, all right, which
is a total Gerry...’ or ‘you Gerried the rendezvous’ or ‘And then we Gerried off to the animal
tracks. We went up the wrong fuckin' mountain.’ By extension, this would also mean that they
name themselves and each other as screw-ups and that the film itself could be titled ‘Screw-
up’. There is no psychological motivation to speak of in Gerry as the film actively avoids
building a plot construction or character development based on the characters’ personal reasons
by refusing to give any reason at all for their actions.

By stripping away the structures of plot and character, Gerry is left with only the
fundamental aspect of cinema: that which the camera shows, the image. Which brings us to the
cinematography of the film, one for which, along with the one for Elephant, cinematographer
Harry Savides won a ‘Best Cinematography’ New York Film Critics Circle award in 2003. The
cinematography of Gerry, like its narrative structure, rejects tradition and conventional
filmmaking and consists mainly of three elements: the long take, the absence of shot-reverse-
shot editing and a refusal to frame the characters as the focal point of a given shot. We can see
here the influence of other works and directors such as Sátántangó (1994), a Hungarian film by
Béla Tarr, and Andrei Tarkovsky, who both used long takes and slow cinema to tell a story, and
the influence of minimalistic cinema which can be seen at the start and at the end of the film
where it shows both times a shot of a blue screen, referencing Blue (1993) by Derek Jarman, a
film that is nothing but a static, blue screen with a soundtrack and voice-overs.

Gerry has a runtime of approximately a hundred minutes and features about the same amount
of long takes. To use a previously given example: the scene with Gerry Affleck stranded on a
boulder last for over seven minutes, whereas another of a close-up shot of Gerry Damon and
Gerry Affleck walking with nothing but the droning sound of their footsteps goes on for four
minutes. The most infamous of these long takes has to be a seven-minutes long shot of, once

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again, the two Gerries walking from dawn till sunrise, this time with Gerry Affleck in the
foreground and Gerry Damon in the background. These long takes are reminiscent of the
cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking: leave the camera rolling, no cuts and no voice-
overs. By continuing on for so long, the long take invites the viewer to take in everything and
to closely examine what is on screen. For instance, when watching the last mentioned shot of
the two Gerries walking, one of two opinions is formed: nothing happens or, the more
interesting one, something does happen: the sun rises, illuminating the scene with natural light
until both actors are clearly visible on screen.

Shot-reverse-shot edits or point-of-view shots are also largely absent in Gerry as Gus Van
Sant utilises the pan or tracking shot instead. That is to say, there are some moments that are
reminiscent of the shot-reverse-shot formula but because each of these shots lasts over a minute
or longer, the effect is not the same as it would be in the rapid editing style of Hollywood
cinema. In one noticeable scene, the two Gerries are standing on opposite hills yelling at each
other. The first shot is framed as a long shot with both the actors on screen. The next shot is an
over the shoulder shot from Gerry Damon’s perspective. Naturally the audience would expect
the next shot to be an over the shoulder shot from Gerry Affleck’s perspective but the camera
instead cuts back to the initial long shot, deliberately denying the audience the anticipated
formula.

Lastly, there is the framing of most of the shots. Whereas conventional film making would
frame the actors in medium or close-up shots, because what would be the point of attaching big
name actors like Matt Damon to your film if you are not going to showcase them on screen, the
framing in Gerry shows a preference for making the landscape the focal point of a shot rather
than the actors, who are off to the side or not in the shot at all. Coming back to the scene of
Gerry Affleck stranded on the boulder, the focal point in this shot and scene is the boulder. By
framing the entire boulder in the shot, the actors look small and helpless, which helps to convey
the feeling that they are truly out of their element and lost in nature. At times, the camera seems
to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the environment, seemingly taking breaks from the actual
film to film shots of the natural surroundings.

As a final thought on Gerry, there is one other (art) medium that often operates with this
kind of cinematography: videogames. In an interview for The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Gus
Van Sant relates how, during the research for Elephant, he came across videogames as it was
believed there was a connection between those and the killers’ motives. Having never played a
videogame before, Van Sant’s assistant downloaded the first level of the original Tomb Raider
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for him to play. And rather than being interested in the story, the character, the gameplay or the
actual act of playing the game, Gus Van Sant was fascinated by the camera: ‘Videogames are
often doing what we were doing in Gerry. To get from point A to point B, you have to actual
travel there. You can’t cut like in cinema, cut to the new location. You actually, like, walk. Like
in reality. Because of that I started thinking about cinema like that’ (The Story of Film). Indeed,
when looking at the film from this perspective, Gerry does share a lot of cinematic similarities
with many videogames, from older games like Super Mario Bros. to more modern games like
Skyrim, where the main goal is to get the videogame character from point A to point B. The
only difference is the aspect of agency as you actually get to control the character and play a
game as opposed to merely watching Gerry Damon and Gerry Affleck trudge through a desert
landscape, which can be seen as contributing to the idea of Gerry being a boring film.

So by stripping away the narrative structures and cinematographic conventions of traditional


film making, Gerry challenges the very idea of the fiction film. We are under the impression
that a well-structured narrative with quick, short shots, the shot-reverse-shot formula and actors
being the most important element in the frame are all intrinsic to the fiction film and that the
fiction film cannot exist without these. But it is only because of tradition and familiarity that
we believe this to be true. Gerry can be seen as a return to the idea of cinéma pur of the early
20th century and challenges its viewers to think about what truly are the intrinsic and extrinsic
formulas of the fiction film.

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Chapter 3: Elephant

Elephant is the most well-known film of the ‘Death Trilogy’ for its controversial subject,
being a fictionalised portrayal of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, and for being the
winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. As the second film in the trilogy,
Elephant utilises a lot of the styles and choices seen in Gerry, albeit for different reasons and
to different results. While it has a bit more of a traditional narrative, it by no means adheres to
a conventional narrative structure and its cinematography is more a matter of style over
substance. The title of the film can already provide us with some information regarding the
three layers of the film. For the narrative structure, the title refers to the parable of the blind
men and the elephant where each blind man touches only one part of the elephant and gives his
interpretation based on that sole interaction. Likewise, Elephant has a narrative structure that
shows the same time and event, a high school day, from multiple viewpoints. For the
cinematography, the title refers to Elephant (1989), a short film directed by Alan Clarke, which
draws similarly on actual events, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and was filmed in long takes
using a Steadicam. Lastly, in regard to the subject matter, the title refers to the proverbial
elephant in the room, the collective denial of some obvious problem, here being the true reasons
behind the shooting. Each of these will be discussed more in-depth later on.

Like Gerry, Elephant can be summarised in a single sentence: we follow several high school
students going about their day until two of them skip school, come back bearing guns and start
killing other students. The narrative construction is more character driven but unlike a
traditional narrative construction where events are in a causal and sequential order, it is
presented here through multiple viewpoints which gives the film a circular motion. The film
opens and ends with a shot of the sky. Each character’s segment begins with them in high school
during the day and ends with the shooting. We get to see the same events and moments looped
over and over again, only changing the character the camera chooses to follow. Glancing from
the DVD menu, there are seven storylines, each introduced with a title card stating the name of
the character, interwoven and cut between over the course of the day:
1. John who arrives late at school because his father was driving while drunk behind the wheel,
which is the first scene following the shot of the sky at the beginning of the film. He later
encounters the shooters before the massacre and warns people not to go into the school building.
2. Elias, a photographer, who spends the day photographing various people he meets. He
eventually ends up at the library where the killers start shooting.
3. Nathan, a football player, who walks from the football field to the school to meet up with his

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girlfriend Carrie. Their conversation is interrupted when they hear gunshots in the corridor.
4. Michelle who gets into trouble for refusing to wear shorts during gym class and is visibly
uncomfortable when she undresses in the changing room. Later she is at the library putting
books back on the shelves when she comes face to face with the killers.
5. Brittany, Jordan and Nicole, named ‘les filles’ on the DVD menu, who have an almost
stereotypical discussion on boys, friendship and their parents over lunch. They later collectively
vomit up their food in the toilets where the killers corner them.
6. Eric and Alex, the two killers. They order guns, plan out and execute their massacre but we
also see them playing videogames, watching television or play the piano.
7. Benny, the only character whose storyline is shown when the killings have already begun.
He wanders the school corridors and helps other students to escape before he is shot by Eric.

Contrary to how multiple viewpoints are often used in a conventional narrative, each of these
perspectives does not offer any information or explanation for something that happens during
a different storyline. One would logically assume that Eric and Alex’s segment would provide
the reasoning for their actions but none is given. We do get a shot of Alex being pelted by
spitballs during class but it is never stated or shown that being bullied is his motivation to start
shooting. Likewise, no motivation can be derived from the characters themselves as they have
no development, being little more than archetypes: John has trouble with his father, Elias is an
artist, Nathan a jock, Michelle a self-conscious nerd, les filles are the pretty ones. Only Benny
comes close to being a traditional hero or protagonist for helping the other students but like the
killers’, his reason for doing so is never shown. Rather than a psychologically motivated plot
with developed characters, the multiple viewpoints structure and the barest amount necessary
to identify with the characters (we have all been to high school with its various student
archetypes) make for a realistic or rather a verisimilitude of what that day in 1999 could have
been like.

In regard to the cinematography of Elephant, Gus Van Sant again opts for the usage of the
long take and the refusal to use the shot-reverse-shot formula. The long take here aids in
conveying the verisimilitude of a mundane high school day as we follow the characters going
about their business. This harkens back to how Gerry distilled cinema to its essence: the image.
When we see, for instance, Nathan walking from the football field to the school, this is all we
see. No motivations, no furthering the narrative, just the image of Nathan walking, accentuated
by the non-diegetic, haunting tones of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the same song that Alex
plays on the piano in a later scene.

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There is however a difference between the long take of Gerry and those of Elephant: the
framing of the character. Whereas Gerry did not use its characters as a focal point, Elephant
goes to great efforts to keep its actors in the centre of the frame. By also placing the character
in the foreground and keeping a sharp focus on it while blurring the background, this ensures
that the viewer’s attention is solely on the one character in question. But the longer the long
take lasts, the more we get the impression that these characters are isolated and disconnected
from those around them. We follow Nathan for five minutes of walking but during that time he
walks alone, never interacting with anyone until he reaches his girlfriend. The same goes for
all of the other characters: they all walk a distinct path, presumably one that they have walked
over and over again, but they walk it alone. Contrast this to Gerry where Gerry Damon and
Gerry Affleck deviate from the path but do so together.

Further compounding this feeling of disconnection between the characters is the absence of
the shot-reverse-shot formula. Because the camera is either filming a character from behind or
has two characters within the same frame when they are talking, the viewer is denied the chance
to identify with a character, beyond their archetype, and would thus be unable to form a
connection to the character like one would with a character in a conventional narrative. The
only times when there is a semblance of this formula would be when a moment of one storyline
is revisited in another and shown from a different angle. For example: when John and Elias are
talking during John’s storyline segment, we can see the (slightly) blurred figure of Michelle
running as our attention is focused on John and Elias. Later we see this very same scene played
out from Michelle’s viewpoint but with John and Elias blurred as we now focus on Michelle
and her story. This only further cements the idea of disconnection when we are shown two or
more characters or events happening during the same time in the same space without either of
them having an impact on the other. In spite of this or precisely because of this, a different
connection between the viewer and the characters is made: by denying us any traditional filmic
traits, we are disconnected from the film which allows us to connect to the feeling of disconnect
between the characters and the isolation from their environment. This is beautifully exemplified
around fifteen minutes into the film in what might be the most human moment in the entire
film: John is in a vacant room crying after he got into trouble with the principal for arriving too
late due to his father’s drunkenness when a girl, who is named Acadia and seems to be his
friend, walks in on him:

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Acadia: What’s wrong?
John: Nothing.
Acadia: You’re crying.
John: Yeah.
Acadia: Is something bad?
John: I don’t know.
Acadia (kisses John on the cheek): I’ll see you later.

‘This is as close a human interaction as we get: two people failing to make a meaningful
connection and then going their separate ways’ (Sight & Sound 18).

While all of the above serves to deliberately subvert the conventional narrative structure,
there are two more things in Elephant to accentuate this. On the one hand, thanks to the multiple
viewpoint structure, narrative weight is given to multiple, ordinary characters rather than
following a single, exceptional protagonist going through an arc. This puts an emphasis on the
community or the ordinary which complements the verisimilitude of high school nicely. On the
other, the viewer is denied a climax. When Alex and Eric are preparing their plan, they make
mention of using explosions to further the bloodshed. In a traditional narrative, we would expect
these explosions to factor into the climax but rather the film ends with Alex cornering Nathan
and Carrie in a freezer and playing a game of ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ to decide who he is
going to shoot. From there, the film cuts to a shot of the sky, Moonlight Sonata starts playing
and the end credits roll. We do not see or hear Alex shooting and are thus denied a resolution
to the suspense built up during said scene.

On a final note, like there is a resemblance between Gerry and videogames, there is a
resemblance between Elephant and a different genre, albeit one that I believe Gus Van Sant did
not intend, namely horror. Taken at face value, Elephant takes the effort to get the audience to
connect with multiple students who are little more than archetypes and trying to develop them
only for them to ultimately get killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong
time. In a different context, this could pass as any run-of-the-mill slasher film story. Making
the characters feel isolated is also a common characteristic of many horror films. Furthermore,
the way the killings are filmed, comes across as being banal, devoid of the stylised way death
is usually portrayed on screen. They are filmed this way to contrast how death is filmed in
conventional Hollywood cinema but it is for the sake of argument. This begs the question:
would we care about these characters? Should we care about these characters? With the way
how and the amount of death, killing and dying shown in cinema nowadays, the killings in
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Elephant could come across as boring, with how indifferent they are shown and how
disinterested the killers, and subsequently the audience, are in their own actions. If we are as
indifferent to the killings as the killers are themselves, are we not identifying with the killers?
And on a meta-level, is buying a ticket or DVD and watching people get killed not making a
spectacle out of death? After all, do we not watch slasher films to see people getting killed? As
Alex says right before he and Eric drive off to start their massacre: ‘Most importantly, have
fun.’ I am certain that this is not what Gus Van Sant had in mind when he made Elephant but it
is food for thought.

Like Gerry before it, Gus Van Sant’s refuses to use a conventional narrative structure and
film making techniques we have come to expect to see in a film. Instead he opts for a multiple
viewpoint structure and long takes challenges us once more to rethink the concept of cinema
and film narrative. By forcibly disconnecting the viewer from the film and denying the audience
traditional formal elements, one could read this as a critique on the overabundant reliance on
these elements. But unlike Gerry, there is the sensitive subject matter to take into account. It
would have been easy for Gus Van Sant to make Elephant a more traditional and sensational
narrative, be it a film or documentary, that could try to explain the killers’ motives and
psychologies and then judge and denounce them for those but he did not. As he says it himself:
‘I knew there would be no dramatic coverage of the event because of the way we think of drama
as entertainment and not as investigative. […] My reaction was, why not? Why don’t we use
drama to look into something like this? (Sight & Sound 16). Elephant is a drama film without
the drama.

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Chapter 4: Last Days

As the last part of the trilogy, Last Days utilises the same elements seen in Gerry and
Elephant, a rejection of traditional narrative and cinematography, for its own theme and
purposes while simultaneously pushing these elements to a greater degree. Last Days is the
culmination of Gus Van Sant’s cinematic language. While the film is certainly watchable in its
own right, I would advise to watch it in conjunction with the other two as the best way to analyse
Last Days would be to compare it to the other two films Gerry and Elephant.

Last Days pushes the boundaries of what can be called a narrative. As mentioned before, the
film is loosely based on the death of Kurt Cobain, the frontman of Nirvana, although it would
be more accurate to say that Last Days draws inspiration from it as the events shown in the film
contradict the factual evidence of the real life event. That said, there are many similarities:
Blake, the main character, visually looks the same as Kurt Cobain in regards to appearance and
wardrobe. Drug abuse, while not explicitly shown on screen, is implied in what little dialogue
the film has and Blake certainly comes across as a drug user in his performance. The final shot
of the film eerily recalls the famous picture of investigators examining Cobain’s corpse. As for
the narrative, what happens in the film can be summarised as follows: we watch a man stumble
around in his castle-like house as, for lack of clearer terminology, things happen, until he is
found dead at the end of the film. While this sounds very similar to the narrative of Gerry, the
narrative in Last Days is so minimalistic that it might as well not exist at all, steeping into non-
narrative or even anti-narrative. Gerry had some sense of temporality as the film depicted a
defined period of time from when Gerry Damon and Gerry Affleck arrive by car until Gerry
Affleck’s death. Elephant’s temporality is fragmented across the various viewpoints but they
all, save for the killers’ storyline, take place during the same day. Last Days has no (defined)
temporality to speak off: there is no indication given regarding the amount of time Blake spends
inside the house, most reviews estimate two or three days, but the film cuts wildly between
segments taking place at different times at different places.

There is also no tension to speak of. Gerry, for its meandering plot, had some of it, Gerry
Affleck being stuck on the boulder for instance or possibly even the viewer perceived tension
of whether or not they are going to survive their hike through the desert. Early on in Elephant,
during a John segment, we get a glimpse of the killers walking into the school armed to the
teeth, introducing the element of violence into the film. The viewer can now expect the
shootings to happen so tension is carried throughout the film. Last Days on the other hand goes
out of its way to deny or avoid any tension, plot or character development. Even the suicide at
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the end of the film could come out of left field if the viewer is not aware that Blake is a Cobain
analogue as there is no reasons given for Blake killing himself.

Even from the interaction between the characters, there can be no tension or plot derived. At
two different times in the film, the house is visited by strangers. The first time by a
representative of the Yellow Pages who wants to inquire whether or not Blake intends to
prolong an advertisement he mistakenly believes Blake bought the previous year, a scene that
plays out in real time. In a traditional narrative, this kind of misunderstanding could be the start
of a plotline but here Blake, quite literally, falls asleep during the scene, denying the viewer of
any plot or tension. The second time, the visitors are two young men, Mormons, who are here
to talk about their religion. Their meeting with the other residents of the house, roommates
and/or fellow band members of Blake, could provide another starting point for a plot to develop
by juxtaposing the visitors’ strict, religious background against the rock-and-roll residents but
the film cuts to Blake upstairs so we do not get to see how the conversation plays out. Later on,
we see the Mormons leaving the house without much fanfare.

Another element that carries over from the other two films into Last Days is the feeling of
isolation and loneliness. What minimal interaction Blake has with other characters does not
obscure the fact that for the greater part of the film, he is alone, both in a formal sense of being
the single actor in the frame and by Blake not only failing to connect with the other characters
but by not even trying. The scene with the Yellow Pages representative is a prime example of
this. While the characters in Elephant were similarly alone, they are also shown to be part of a
community, high school, which is something that Blake cannot attest to.

The cinematography in Last Days is akin to the one used in Gerry and Elephant as befitting
the third entry in a trilogy. Gus Van Sant uses the long take, the refusal of the shot-reverse-shot
formula and placing the focal point of a frame on something other than the characters to the
same effect as in the other two films. Combined with the non-existent narrative, this highly
stylised cinematography is used more as a means to present the scenes and tied them together
as some form of collage. Gus Van Sant cites Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080
Bruxelles (1975) from director Chantal Akerman as a direct influence on this film as well as on
the Death Trilogy as a whole (The Story of Film). This influence can clearly be seen in a shot
of Blake inside his kitchen when he pours cereal into a bowl, as the cinematography used here
is nearly identical to a similar scene of Jeanne cooking potatoes in her kitchen, the only
difference being the distance between the character and the camera.

22
There lies a danger in the way Last Days provides no plot or narrative of its own and its
highly stylised cinematography which ties in directly to the subject of Blake-as-Cobain. Like I
mentioned in the introduction, we are inclined to find and read narrative into almost anything
and when we know the Cobain angle, it would be easy to see Last Days as a stereotypical film
about a tortured and eccentric artist who commits suicide after a history of substance abuse.
This possible reading can be supported by several scenes in the film. In the aforementioned
scene of the two Mormons, the shot cuts from the two young men talking about Jesus Christ
(‘This is my son, Jesus Christ, hear him.’) to a shot of Blake (a musician). Our familiarity with
the usage of parallel editing would lead us to believe that there is a connection between these
two shots: Blake as a sort of Christ-like figure. With our modern tendency to put dead
musicians, or dead artists in general, on a pedestal and sanctifying them, there is a case to be
made that Blake is presented here as a rock star deity or at the least a cultural icon. This
interpretation is further supported by a later scene wherein one of the roommates asks Blake’s
help in writing a song with the sort of reverence normally beholden between student and master.
But the biggest support of this reading comes at the end of the film when, through the use of
double exposure, we see Blake’s naked spirit, having shed all material things, rise up from his
corpse and climb up towards heaven. The implication here would be that Blake’s suicide was
more akin to a sacrifice, as the Mormons mentioned earlier that ‘by killing something pure, by
sacrificing something that was innocent, you became innocent yourself’, to keep his music pure.
Blake, the man, struggles with the image that culture and/or society has imposed on him, that
of a rock star, which ties into the film’s theme of man versus self, and being unable to balance
these two aspects of himself, he opts to end it all himself. As mentioned, this is a potential
interpretation of the film but because Gus Van Sant goes to great lengths to dismantle
conventional narrative structure in film, forcibly imposing the narrative of a pure, Christ-like
musician whose artistic gift and person are too great for the world to handle and who winds up
making the ultimate sacrifice to keep his art pure onto the film feels detrimental to the film’s
artistic value if the viewer chooses to put narrative ahead of image.

Last Days is the final piece in Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy where all the stylistic choices
made regarding narrative, cinematography and themes throughout the trilogy reach their apex.
More so than Gerry, more so than Elephant, the dismantling of a traditional or conventional
narrative structure combined with the highly stylised and innovative use of cinematography
shows how Gus Van Sant’s constructs his own cinematic grammar that makes a return to the
fundamentals of cinema, that what makes cinema cinema: the image and how the camera

23
captures and shows it. Last Days is a film that has to be enjoyed visually and what little dialogue
there is in the film is so inconsequential, one might even watch it with the audio turned off in
order to fully appreciate the visual.

24
Conclusion

Gerry, Elephant and Last Days take up an interesting spot in Gus Van Sant’s filmography.
If Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000) are Van Sant’s breakout hits within
mainstream cinema and the Death Trilogy his return to his being an arthouse director, we can
juxtapose his work after his mainstream success against those before it and see how his brush
with being a mainstream director has influenced his work. In fact, each film in the Death Trilogy
can be seen as an inverse of one of Van Sant’s previous works. Gerry stands opposite of My
Own Private Idaho (1991), a road film where two young men embark on a journey of personal
discovery. Conversely, Gerry also features two young men on a journey but nothing is learned,
neither by the characters or the audience, to the extent that Gerry can be called an inverted road
film. Elephant can be placed opposite of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993). On the narrative
aspect, both films feature a fatal shooting at the climax but in Elephant, this is left unconcluded
and unmotivated whereas in Cowgirls the shooting is a resolution to the film’s conflict. On a
production level, the two films also stand diametrically against each other: Cowgirls features
an extensive, professional cast of celebrities but was a critical failure yet Elephant’s cast
consists of unprofessional teenagers playing themselves, except for the killers obviously, and
achieved critical acclaim and several awards. Last Days is then situated opposite of To Die For
(1995). To Die For is about a woman who is obsessed with becoming a celebrity and will stop
at nothing to achieve that status where Last Days features a celebrity who puts a stop to
everything.

By rejecting conventional narrative and cinematography, each film also rejects other
elements commonly associated with mainstream cinema. For Gerry, this is the notion of star
power, of having a famous actor attached to the film. In 2002, Matt Damon had already starred
in twenty-one films, most noticeably as mainstream successes, Good Will Hunting (1997),
Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001). So there was a pretty good idea of
what to expect when watching a film starring him, which would be the complete opposite of
what we see in Gerry. In this regard, Gerry could be considered an anti-Matt Damon film or
more generally an anti-movie star film. Similarly, Elephant does not capitalise on or
sensationalise its subject matter nor does it offer any kind of explanation, to which extent we
can call it an anti-drama film for the former or an anti-documentary for the latter. As for Last
Days, which deals with the suicide of a famed musician and the last days leading up to it, one
would conventionally call it a biographical film but it is never alluded to that Blake is a famous

25
musician, no explanation is given for his suicide and we never see him play music, aside from
in one shot and it is mediocre at best, making Last Days more of an anti-biopic.

Violence also forms an integral part of the trilogy, how characters react to this and the death
that results from this conflict. Unlike conventional narrative, this conflict in each film comes
from a source outside of the characters’ control rather than stemming from a character’s
personality or cinematic identity clashing with the world around him. In Gerry, the conflict is
man versus nature: the characters cannot exert any influence on their surroundings or the
conflict, which is brought upon by being ill-prepared for the hike and going off the path,
ironically meaning that the entire conflict could have been avoided if the two had been smarter.
But then again, they would not be Gerries if they were. In Elephant, we have man versus man:
two killers versus a community of innocents. Likewise, the students cannot exercise any control
over the conflict and are doomed to merely fall victim to it as the vast majority of students that
are gunned down were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The conflict in Last Days
is of man versus self: Blake the person versus Blake the rock star, as proclaimed by society. As
he has no control over the expectations or treatment that society has for him, Blake ends up
taking his own life, again, ironically the only thing he did have control over.

But more than that, Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy’s best feature is its rejection of
conventional cinema and what the audience has come to expect out of a film. One could easily
be tempted to take this as Van Sant being adamantly opposed to mainstream or Hollywood
cinema. But his commercial success in mainstream media with Good Will Hunting and Finding
Forrester shows that he has a good understanding of it and, more importantly, that he knows
how to use it to produce a critically successful film. To say nothing of his shot-for-shot, full
colour remake of Psycho (1998) as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest users of
conventional narrative, a film where Gus Van Sant famously answered the question of why he
did it with ‘so no one else would have to’ (IMDb: trivia).

Gerry, Elephant and Last Days fall within the category of art house cinema which is best
defined by contrasting it against mainstream cinema. After all, there cannot exist the art film if
there is not the blockbuster to distance itself from. As it has been numerous times addressed,
Gus Van Sant’s art house style encompasses here the rejection of mainstream narrative and
cinematography in favour of his own. In doing so, he not only challenges the notion of what
constitutes a fiction film but also the expectations of an audience that has grown accustomed to
mainstream film making and, regrettable as it might sound, knows no alternatives to it.
Conventional narrative has conditioned us on what a film is: a (good) story involving
26
psychologically motivated characters we can identify with, presented to us in a plot structure
that makes for an interesting viewing. By stripping away all of this from his films and presenting
them in a way that is counterintuitive to our very notion as a viewer, chiefly by using the long
take as we are uncomfortable with the slowness of that technique – we want the plot to move
forward – Gus Van Sant shows us that plot structure, narrative, characters, editing, etc. are not
intrinsic of the idea of cinema but rather extrinsic we only believe them to be intrinsic because
we are oversaturated with them. In doing so, Van Sant redirects our attention the fundamental
aspect of cinema, that which makes cinema, in essence, cinema: the image, the way the camera
catches the image on film as only the camera can and how the camera presents that image back
to us. Gus van Sant’s Death Trilogy is a meditation on the nature of cinema. It does not need to
tell us a story, to speculate, to question, or to explain. It simply has to present us with images.
Because that is what cinema can do, even if it took Gus Van Sant three ‘boring’ films to show
us that.

27
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